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From: TSS ()
Subject: Food safety reform in the USA
Date: May 11, 2007 at 8:39 am PST

The Lancet 2007; 369:1575


Food safety reform in the USA

During the past year, hundreds of people across multiple states in the USA have fallen ill from eating peanut butter contaminated with salmonella, or fresh spinach contaminated with Escherichia coli. Now US health officials are investigating how melamine, a chemical used to make industrial glues, fire retardants, and fertilisers, got into the US food supply. Investigators now believe the chemical was added to rice-protein and wheat-gluten supplements that were produced in China and imported into North America to make pet food. Purchasers routinely measure the nitrogen content of such supplements to determine their protein content, and investigators suspect Chinese suppliers sought to make it appear that their products contained more protein than they actually did by adding melamine, which contains nitrogen. The chemical, which is derived from coal, has no nutritional value.

The contaminant was detected after more than a dozen dogs and cats died after eating pet food. Melamine made its way into the human food supply because scraps of the pet food were added to animal feed given to several thousand hogs and several million chickens. The US Department of Agriculture officials said that meat from only 345 hogs suspected of eating the adulterated feed had gone to stores but that about 2·5 to 3 million chickens had gone to market. Although US health officials have determined that eating meat from these animals poses a very low risk to human health, the incident highlights how difficult it has become to guarantee food safety when the food supply depends on a vast worldwide network of food producers, processors, and distributors.

In response to the melamine contamination, US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Andrew C von Eshenbach has announced the creation of a new position at the FDA called the Assistant Commissioner for Food Protection. The job of this new official is to develop an agency-wide strategy for food safety and food defence and to advise the Commissioner on these matters.

But although this is a good first step, it is far too little. As several experts told the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform at a May 1 hearing, the FDA needs to be given far more money and statutory authority if it is to do its job. In testimony at the hearing, David Kessler, who served as the FDA commissioner from 1990 to 1997 and who is now dean of the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said that without adequate funding and enforcement power the “FDA has no mandate for leadership on prevention of food safety problems, no funding to do important research to find ways to prevent food-borne illness, and no tools to hold companies accountable for implementing food safety measures and taking quick action when the problem is discovered.” Of particular concern to Kessler was the fact that although the FDA can issue recalls, compliance is not required by law nor can the agency fine companies that are slow to act. “The fact is that the federal government has more authority to halt the distribution of dangerous toys than it has over unsafe food products”, Kessler noted.

Democratic members of Congress have promised they will seek more funding for the agency and that they will introduce legislation to grant the FDA authority to order recalls of tainted foods and to fine companies that do not report contamination promptly.

These are needed reforms, but they too are still only stopgap measures. In the long term, Congress needs to consider a complete reorganisation of the US food-safety system. While the FDA and US Department of Agriculture undertake the bulk of food inspections, a 1998 study by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, Ensuring Safe Food from Production to Consumption, found that a total of 12 different federal agencies are charged with overseeing the US food supply. These agencies operated under 35 health-related statutes and more than 50 interagency agreements and report to a total of 28 House and Senate Committees. Yet not one agency, the report noted, had food safety as its primary mission.

The report concluded with a call for Congress to establish “a unified and central framework for managing food safety programs, one that is headed by a single official and which has the responsibility and control of resources for all federal food safety activities”. The USA can no longer expect its archaic hodgepodge food safety system to protect its food supply in the global economy of the 21st century. It is time for Congress to dust off that report and consider its advice carefully.

The Lancet


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